Words change meaning over time. Take a word like “woke,” for instance. It’s been around as an adjective for a hundred years but most of us didn’t know it until after the extrajudicial execution of George Floyd. It means aware. Alert. Paying attention to injustice on a systemic level, particularly racial or social injustice. Naturally it was used primarily among those people who were on the minus side of that ledger. Those who are able to live their lives innocent of such constraint have a tendency to imagine that everyone is on the same ride in life. They imagine it so easily that they will actually say things like “If that guy didn’t want to be murdered in a squad car he shouldn’t have been selling cigarettes on the street while being all big and black like that,” and they won’t even hear themselves.
It took most of white America one nine-minute-long snuff video to get them a little bit “woke.” Like, maybe? Maybe there was something to the Black Lives Matter movement? A phrase, by the way, whose very existence is an assertion in the face of loads of evidence that Black lives don’t matter, not as much as—you know—regular people’s. Anyway, lots of white people who’d never given it a thought got a little Woke back then. Began to listen sympathetically to the experiences of others who do not have the freedom to bird-watch in the park. Who experience real terror rather than annoyance when the cop pulls them over. Who can’t go for a run without causing suspicion. And so on, and so forth, in big ways and small, every degrading day, day after day.
Didn’t last long, though. Our large, diverse, and overwhelmingly peaceful BLM marches were eventually completely undermined by a few stray bits of footage of dumpster-burners, put on repeat and shot through the social media and propaganda outlets to restore the proper balance in society, wherein white people are the real victims and everyone else gets what they deserve—where murder by cop is recast as the understandable result when someone Other must have done something wrong.
In fact that whole idea that straight white people should be confronted in any way by a narrative that doesn’t put them at the top of society has been enough to turn the tide for right-wing politicians, who readily manufacture enemies for the fearful and dwindling white majority, sweep up their votes, and go on to enrich the rich, which is their entire agenda. All the rest is props and gimmicks.
Which is why we never hear “woke” anymore except from the right wing, where it is now a multi-purpose catch-all term meaning—well, what? Ask anyone using it, and they’ll hem and haw and shrug and say something about pronouns and possibly having to share a public restroom with someone they’re not sure about and be compelled to tolerate drag queen story time events and make our children learn our history against their parents’ will and—well, basically, “woke” now means anything those pansy-ass liberals think is important. Marsha Blackburn recently griped about that “woke vaccine mandate.” Yeah. It means nothing. It means whatever they want it to mean.
And what do the pansy-ass liberals think is important? Awareness that there are real people who fall outside the straight white bag, people who are being harmed, or targeted, or murdered, or driven to suicide by the circumstances of their birth. Empathy, the natural result of understanding. A degree of care for the Other. A consideration that there is injustice in the world and that we should strive every day to recognize and ameliorate it.
Most of us pansies also care about health care and extinction and the destruction of the environment and the livable climate but as long as you can get enough people worried about trannies in the toity and kids reconsidering their pronouns, nothing will ever have to be done about any of that. Woke now refers to anything that threatens Regular people with having to pay attention to injustice. Woke politics, woke educational doctrines, woke ideology. There’s a sneer in it. And there’s a stain. The implied stain residing in woke is Blackness, and it works. For people persuaded that their position and power at the top of society is being eroded by the Other, woke is shorthand for everything they consider a threat.
“Florida is where Woke goes to die,” crowed Governor Ron DeSantis. It’s also where vaccine-deniers die, and gay nightclub patrons, and high schoolers, and women with problem pregnancies, and young black men carrying tea and Skittles, and the very shoreline, sinking under a warming ocean.
Succinctly and well put, Murr.
Excellent piece Murr, even if the truth here is so vicious my stomach hurts. I am forwarding this to my sister and a couple of my friends. One is a Christian Conservative who honest-to-God complains about the “whole woke culture” and I pretend I’m not bothered. Lisa, hope you’re reading this!
You amaze me. I want to be you when I grow up!
Wow, this is well written. What an indictment of the far right and those that keep closed minds.
Florida is where everyone or everything goes to die. They don’t call it god’s waiting room for nothing. And even Florida itself is dying, due to global warming. The Keys are soon going to be no more, and people with houses there are panicking. We “pansies” told you guys this would happen, but y’all denied climate change. How can anyone deny it now? California, anyone?
This is really good, Murr. I’m going to take a very large personal risk and share it on my Facebook page. I will probably end up with fewer friends, but I don’t care.
Oh, dear. My experience with social media (mind you, it’s just NextDoor) is that it’s filled with far right nut jobs. I recently posted about organic over conventional food when someone was complaining about food that came from a local food store that is known for its cheap prices. Well, such an outcry! Organic is a scam, they saw it on Twitter. Now that Elon Musk has taken over Twitter, we’re getting the real facts now, boy howdy! Goddamn, but people are fucking stupid! I have ceased arguing with them, because they saw it on the internet, so it must be true. When I mentioned they should get their news from actual newspapers, like the NYT… well, the NYT is just fake news. I. Hate. People.
That’s one of the reasons I deleted my FaceBook account. And my Twitter account. And my Instagram account. And I’m very careful about NextDoor, where somebody jumped on me for presenting a dissenting entomologist’s opinion on plants that might or might not encourage parasite infection in Monarch butterflies. “people are fucking stupid” is an excellent summary. One of the things I used to find myself saying repeatedly on FaceBook, when a politically sympathetic person commented on some rightist’s racism with the word “ignorant,” was “We confuse evil with ignorance at our peril.” I finally got tired of saying that.
Well, as Pogo said, “We have seen the enemy.” I don’t need to finish that statement, ya’ll know it by heart. I mostly stay in my room anymore.
I sure do miss Pogo. Nobody but Walt Kelly could draw Spiro Agnew as a hyena.
My dad’s favorite strip. He often read it aloud to us kids at breakfast. Walt Kelly was a genius. Calvin and Hobbes is the only one that’s approached it in both art and philosophy, since.
I loved The Far Side. Some of those one panel cartoons made me laugh so hard, I had tears running down my face. I especially like “How birds see the world”: two pigeons in a tree, looking down on people and dogs and cats, all of whom had targets on their heads.
Murr, that is a superb summary! (Yes, one of the hallmarks of fascism is the insistence that the dominant class is actually the victim.)
I still don’t understand, and never will, why black people are targeted like this. And Gay people, Trans people. They are all just people!! Under the skin there is NOTHING different.
Bigotry is addictive; bigotry is contagious; bigotry is heritable. That’s as close to an explanation as I can come.
Sometimes I think about the possibility of a President DeSantis and it makes me physically ill. Talk about an idiocracy.
Actually DeSantis scares me much more than Trump. Trump is evil, but he’s an idiot. DeSantis is evil, but educated. That is SO much more dangerous.
“…and they won’t even hear themselves.”
It’s nice to know that I don’t scream alone.
I too plan to share this on social media. Hope it goes viral!
Thanks, people. I said everything I wanted to say in the piece but I appreciate y’all weighing in. By the way, my greatest influences in my writing are the King James Bible, Mark Twain, and Pogo.
Add Will Rogers and you’ll have mine.
Thanks. Reading this, I feel a weight lifted from my shoulders. It’s NOT me!
I mean I KNOW that, but you’ve helped me FEEL that. ( sorry for all the caps)
Over here in England I also considered the term “woke” in my blog. Go here:-
Good post that one, but I would replace “barnacles” with “limpet mines.” It’s all about intention.
Oh honey, your commenters make me so grateful for mine! Be well.
Native Floridian here. Please send help!
Seriously. We had our problems before but now we are being overwhelmed with all your racist,treasonous relatives who don’t want to pay taxes but want free services. Take them back please.
Or maybe we can do a swap. Send all your tree hugging environmentalists willing to fight for what makes my state special. We need the reinforcements.
And dear jeebus, recognize that DeathSantis is a danger to humanity ( and everything else).
I’m so sorry. Perhaps your invasive pythons can be introduced to a new diet?
This is spot-on.